Why Calls for Unity Won’t Solve Donald Trump’s Ugly, Anti-Muslim Bigotry

Americans who are buying into his divisive rhetoric are not going to simply start thinking differently. We need better protections for the communities this rhetoric threatens.

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During this week of heightened attention to anti-Muslim views, our mayor-elect Jim Kenney’s call for unity in Philadelphia sounded more than reasonable. But it really bummed me out. This week’s events have thrown another harsh light on the powerlessness of calls for generic unity.

Just one day before Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., someone driving a red pick-up truck threw a severed pig’s head outside a North Philadelphia mosque. The choice of a pig’s head was a clear aggression against Muslims who follow a halal, pork-free diet. The act itself was a threat. In response, Kenney condemned what he recognized as bigotry, urging all Philadelphians to join him “in rejecting this despicable act and supporting our Muslim neighbors.” And in the usual move of any half-decent politician following a hate crime, he called for unity, saying we cannot allow hate to divide the city.

The point here isn’t to parse Kenney’s words — solidarity is important; it sends a message of support to threatened communities and helps create some kind of buffer against hateful threats. And in times like this, it’s instinctive to hope for a humane unity. The issue is, amidst calls for unity we end up ignoring that we’re fighting views that will continue to reject unity at all costs. In this case, we’ve got people who simply refuse to view Muslims as human beings. It’s that clear a dividing line. 

If this line were only being drawn by Trump as an attention-seeking special case, there wouldn’t be a big problem. But as described in a recent Slate article, focusing too much on Trump ignores the extent of anti-Muslim views. A recent poll found that more than half of Republicans (and, yes, some Democrats) believe that Islamic values are at odds with American values and would not vote for a Muslim presidential candidate. Over 40% of Republican respondents agreed that most Muslims should be monitored as potential terrorists. While hate crimes as a whole went down this year, crimes against Muslims increased. And there’s an implied endorsement of exaggerated, Trump-style racism in his continued poll success. This past week of news has been surreal: As political leaders across party lines denounced Trump’s proposed ban, that same plan appeared to resonate with a sizable chunk of Americans, more than likely those channelling dissatisfaction with lacking economic opportunities into resentment toward minorities.

Plenty about this is distressingly predictable — consider the extensive global history of minority scapegoating, especially during economic- and conflict-related stress. What perhaps is uniquely depressing about current progressive responses to this bigotry is how many of them unintentionally legitimize doubts of Muslim humanity. My heart sank at the dozens of articles and Facebook statuses this week offering statistics to “prove” that Muslims aren’t fundamentally violent — the kind of pleading campaign to defend Islam that’s never required here for Christianity, even after a recent extremist attack made in the name of the Christian religion.

With these appeals to “evidence” of Muslim people’s humanity, we’re giving in to the false premise that this bigotry has anything to do with facts. People who believe all Muslims are threats won’t be convinced by numbers and humanitarian pleads. In fact, those pleads and the anti-Trump backlash may just strengthen anti-Muslim views. Political commentators, politicians and other Americans have sought leverage by casting themselves as persecuted truth-tellers, fighting the “political correctness” that apparently blocks people from saying “the truth about Islam,” or whatever bullshit. Such groups can easily reframe the widespread denunciation of Trump’s ban into an example of persecution against their movement, which they can then (delusionally) portray as a brave quest.

Unity cannot be coaxed into this sort of standoff, not when it requires American Muslims to bend over backwards — following “The Muslim Drill” of having to assert their American-ness — attempting to prove their innocence to those who can only see them as guilty. At this point, what we need to do is fight to protect people when they are threatened simply for existing. That fight includes monitoring hate crimes and enforcing repercussions, supporting organizations that help protect Muslim Americans’ legal rights, and, on the media end, taking care not to use the word “terrorism” only with respect to Muslims, since non-Muslims can and do commit terrorist acts. That fight also requires accepting that real divisions will continue to feed on fear and resentment — and that the effort spent trying to talk anyone out of that fear and resentment is better spent on concrete steps to strengthen and protect our threatened communities.

Follow @elenagooray on Twitter.